Bangkok to Siem Reap

I think that train travel in South East Asia is great for one reason only: it provides a smooth ride.  Buses and cars out there don’t have the best suspension and the roads are scattered with pot holes, so the best way to travel is by train, especially if you want to catch up on some sleep.  After our disastrous attempt at catching a train up to Kota Bahru in Malaysia, we were now more determined than ever to have our train journey!  Dave had gone on to Vietnam and we had left the beautiful Perhentian islands.  We planned to catch a train from the border straight up to Bangkok.  I was a bit apprehensive about heading back to Bangkok, because the first time I went backpacking in 2010 this is where we began and the culture shock was huge.  We arrived on the day of the Thai Queen’s birthday so the city was even busier than normal and all I can vaguely recall from that first evening is walking down Ko San Road in a daze with people from all angles shouting ‘Tuk tuk!’ at me.  Nevertheless I decided to give the city a second chance, maybe we just got off on the wrong foot.

We treated ourselves to a hotel in Kota Bahru and ate dinner at a local night market.  In the morning our omen appeared in the form of poor old Mick being a tad unwell.  It’s always funny to begin with when someone gets the travel bug (pardon the pun), but amusement soon turns into pity!  We still got to the bus station on time and found the correct stop.  Naturally, the bus for our stop parked up at the opposite end of the station.  A local Muslim lady who saw us looking a bit confused very thoughtfully asked us where we were going to and pointed out our bus, we thanked her and did the ‘I’m going to miss my bus’ jog over to the coach.

The journey was hot but short and we arrived at border control about an hour later.  We were really excited and smug – we were finally going to be getting a train and could tease Dave for missing out when we next saw him.  Went through the border and basked in the excitement of being in a new place and entering the next stage of our adventure.  The tourist information office was close by and we bounded in to happily ask where the train station was, our answer from the lady at the desk was this:

‘No train today, bomb!’

Kay and I laughed, and so did the lady behind the desk!  Mick didn’t, can’t really blame him.  We learned that our best option was to get a bus to Bangkok, it was an overnight journey and would take about fifteen hours but it was a good price.  We all agreed and headed outside to get a taxi.  The only taxi service available was moto-taxis.  I avoided hiring a moped the first time I was in Thailand because I thought it was very dangerous, but this guy clearly rode these things every day so I thought sod it, let’s go.  It was good fun actually, I can see how riding a moped could actually be safer than driving a car because you have so much more control and ability to weave around obstacles.

Note how happy Kayleigh looks but how uncomfortable Mick looks, unlucky!

The drivers kindly dropped us off at a cash point and then took us right to the bus station.  We got our tickets, bought some snacks and waited.  Once on the bus we were provided with some great entertainment, there was a Thai soap opera in which three friends were constantly in trouble with their wives for getting into compromising situations with other women.  Plenty of slapstick thrown in as well for good measure.  After this we watched a variety of Thai music videos in which the main theme seemed to be passionate and all-consuming love.  One music video ended with a heart-broken and now crippled girl rolling herself and her wheelchair off the top of a building!

The televisions were then switched off and I busied myself with taking photos of overloaded mopeds and vans in transit – it’s one of the many things I love about this part of the world:

 

 

Eventually we fell asleep (Mick opted for the floor, he still wasn’t feeling great) and arrived in Bangkok in the early hours of the morning.  We were staying at a hostel called Suk 11 which had been recommended to me by my mum’s cousin.  It is located in the Sukhumvit area of the city, the opposite end to Ko San Road.  It is one of THE nicest places I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in.  The decor is beautiful and interesting, it is family run and very family friendly so it almost feels like a retreat.  The rooms are immaculate and come with brilliant air con, there is a TV room, internet and all of the shared bathrooms are sparkling with cleanliness.  There is even a restaurant next door which serves amazing meals and has very friendly staff.  We checked in and had breakfast which was being served just as we arrived.  Best breakfast ever!  Brown and white bread, coffee and tea, fruit juice, jam and peanut butter, and a spread of freshly chopped mango, watermelon, pineapple and more.  In addition each morning they would also offer some small breakfast snacks.  These normally came in a little shot glass and consisted of yoghurt, salt or sugar and some kind of local fruit.  They were quite delicious!

After the obligatory backpacker nap we explored the local area and agreed to head to the weekend market the following day.  That night we decided to go out for a casual drink at a bar, there seemed to be a lot of watering holes around so we were sure we’d find somewhere nice.  Hmm.  Well, what we hadn’t realised was that we were right in the middle of the sex district.  Every single bar was full of Thai ladies and ladyboys and big balding white men.  We settled on playing ‘spot the sex tourist’ and after walking past what seemed like the millionth go-go bar we decided to call it a night.

We spent the next two days SHOPPING!  I’ve been to Chatuchak Market three times now and I would happily go back.  So many beautiful things and so much unsuccessful haggling on my part!  I still got some super bargains.  After a few days of shopping, eating, drinking and sex tourist spotting we had to leave.  Mick was heading up to the north of Thailand and we were heading to Cambodia.  The three of us would meet up in Laos in a couple of weeks.  I’m happy to say that I absolutely loved Bangkok the second time around, and was actually really sad to leave.

We said goodbye to Mick and headed to the train station where we would be getting a mini-van to the Cambodian border.  Mick planned to get a train to the north and as far as we were aware he had been successful, the lucky git.  As you will now have guessed, no journey for Kayleigh and I would ever be simple, we’d come to accept this now.  But we were running out of ideas as to what else could possibly go wrong for us!  Funnily enough, this post is set before the landslide we encountered in Laos.  Seated in a mini-van with a German couple and a Czech family we set off.  I really admire families that do backpacking trips together, I think it must be a great experience for the kids but also a lot of hard work for the parents!  The three children belonging to the Czech family looked to be between five and twelve years, yet the Thai driver still thought it would be appropriate to put on a vicious film about vampires which was rated 15.  Poor kids!  Napping was difficult due to the lack of suspension (when oh when would we get our train ride?!) but we managed to get a little bit of sleep.

Once at the border we had lunch, filled out all the necessary forms and crossed over into Cambodia.  The difference of the place struck me immediately.  I thought Thailand was poor, but I had never seen anything like this.  We waited for the rest of group to arrive and stared at this new place.  I just couldn’t believe how poor it looked, I had known that Cambodia was a developing country before I decided to go there but actually being there was something else.  

We were grouped together with some more travellers and herded on to a bus that smelt rather strongly of body odour, nice.  But we knew we would be arriving in Siem Reap very soon so we kept smiling and went on our way.  At a roadside cafe where we had a break, Kayleigh and I had our first experience of the children that sell in the streets.  We’d heard so much about them already and they did everything we thought they would.  ‘Hello, hello, today you buy!’ was shouted at us by little girls and boys holding up small trinkets and wristbands.  They laughed and joked so easily with us, it was clear how accustomed they were to this.  They were full of cuteness and smiles and waved us off as we left.  I wasn’t really sure how I felt about them but it definitely made me uncomfortable.  I feel it’s so difficult to know whether they are there by choice or not so I always avoid buying from them just in case.

By the time we got to Siem Reap it was dark and the coach company had pulled a little trick out from under their sleeve.  Rather than dropping us at the bus station as planned, they dropped us at a tuk tuk rank so that we would have to buy a tuk tuk into town.  To be honest, travel is so cheap in South East Asia that I kind of think fair enough.  But Kay and I had one big problem: we had no money.  As we were quite tired now we both began to panic a little and became short with the drivers trying to ask us to get into their tuk tuk.  We were trying to contact the hostel we had booked with by phone but discovered that our phones were not working.  We had been able to laugh when things went wrong up until now: it was dark, we were penniless, we didn’t know where we were and we really didn’t know what to do.  All of the sudden, a tuk tuk driver who called himself John quietly interrupted us and asked us what was wrong.  We gave up trying to ignore them and told him that we had no money and didn’t know how we would get to our hostel.  John said that if we agreed to let him take us to Angkor Watt and the other temples in the morning at a price of twelve dollars for the day for both of us, he would take us to our hostel free of charge.  Surprised by such kindness and how cheap the price for the temple tour was, we immediately said yes and breathed a huge sigh of relief.  These simple acts of kindness were something I encountered a lot in Cambodia and later in Laos, the people in these two countries are quite incredible.  

We checked in at Rosy Guesthouse (a fabulous place that I will write about in my next post) and checked our emails.  Mick had sent us both a message, as we read it we both began to laugh hysterically.  He had arrived at the train station to be told his train was cancelled due to flooding, and he ended up having to get a coach.  Brilliant.

Landslides and how to overcome them, literally.

During my globe-trotting escapades last summer with my partner in crime Kayleigh, we encountered a wide variety of challenges.  I’ve already covered our monstrous journey from Taman Negara to the Perhentians, but there’s plenty more to tell!  After a few days in paradise and a difficult journey up to Bangkok (I’ll tell you about that another time …) we planned to travel through Cambodia and Laos, finishing in Luang Prabang where we would meet back up with Mick.  Dave was by this point travelling in Vietnam and we had hoped to all meet up in Thailand but realised we would be cutting our visa time allowance too fine just before we flew home, so it was going to be the three of us in Laos instead.

Of course there were a number of mishaps during our Cambodia travels, but again I’m going to have to give each event its own blog space – too much disaster for just one post!  After a short stop over in Vientianne (the most laid back capital city I have ever been to) we were on another luxury double decker bus for a six hour ride to Luang Prabang.  Everything was organised, Mick knew what hostel we were staying in and roughly what time we would arrive, all good to go.  But the numbing inevitability of big time-delaying obstacles was first made apparent by Kayleigh’s broken seat on the bus.  At first we laughed but I now think it was an omen, a sign of things to come.

We entertained ourselves with Kayleigh’s ipod and looked at the incredible landscape we were being driven through – we were cruising along extremely high and windy roads through lush green mountains, it was so beautiful but I should mention that you couldn’t see very far ahead at all because of all the sharp corners and tall, dense hills.  We had a short mid-morning break at a roadside cafe (noodle soup, fragrant and delicious) and were then herded back on to the coach by the driver beeping his horn in an absent minded manner.  By this point we’d been travelling for about four or five hours, so I assumed we must nearly be there.  I also noted how surprisingly smooth the journey was going, thought too soon didn’t I?

Half an hour or so later I noticed a couple of broken down lorries up ahead.  Then a broken down coach with a load of backpackers sat on the road looking like they’d been there for hours.  Very odd indeed that these vehicles had all broken down in the same spot.  We turned a corner and suddenly saw the road lined on both sides with stationary cars, lorries, vans, taxis, buses, coaches and many other vehicles.  Something was quite clearly not right.  We seemed to be driving past all of these, so for a short time we were optimistic that we weren’t going to be held up by whatever was happening.  Wrong!  Our driver quickly pulled into a lay by and came upstairs to tell us all to grab our bags, start walking and meet ‘the bus on the other side’ … other side of what?  We assumed he meant the other side of all this traffic.  He gave us all a little ticket with a bus number written on it, we got our stuff together and began walking.  Sods law had kindly made this event occur in the middle of the day, that is, the hottest part of the day.  We stumbled along the road feeling the sweat start it’s south bound journey from our foreheads and marvelled at the ridiculous amount of non-moving vehicles lining the long and winding road.  We walked for about a mile still clueless about what was happening, but very keen to get out of the intense heat.  Kayleigh and I had now accepted that we were going to be late and Mick would probably miss us; we’d have to try and locate him tomorrow instead.

Then it hit us.  We turned a corner and saw this:

The road came to an abrupt end, the reason the vehicles had been held up was because of a landslide.  You see where the yellow digger is?  Well a few metres below that, just below the trees, that’s where the road is hiding.  The digger is trying to dig down to the road surface, very dangerous as removing the dirt only encourages more to fall down.  We learned from a few other backpackers hanging around that it had happened a couple of days earlier (so the bus company we booked through had known all about it, hence the coach relay they had organised for us) and that a whole village had virtually been wiped away.  Tragically, four people had died.

We had one choice and one choice only: climb over the landslide.  In the unbearable heat.  Whilst carrying our (now very heavy, the shopping in Bangkok is great) backpacks.  With nothing but our steely muscles (did I say steely?  I meant non-existent) to drag us up and over.  Without stopping to ponder our predicament (because that would have only made us more nervous) we got our trainers on and took a big gulp of water.  Then we began the ascent.

I looked at nothing but my feet and tried not to think about how ungraceful I probably looked, and more importantly how high up I was, oh, and how unstable the dirt felt beneath my feet.  It took us about twenty minutes to get to what we thought was the top.  Covered in mud, dust and sweat we triumphantly posed for a photo taken by a couple of Korean girls from our coach (who were immaculate I might add).  We then turned another one of those wily corners and realised we were only half way up, words cannot describe the sinking feeling of disappointment we both experienced.  On the way up we were passed by many locals carrying backpacks for other westerners, they were half our size and were going at twice the speed – pretty amazing if you ask me.

The descent on the other side proved to be more difficult because the ground would just slip away as soon as I set foot on it.  But we could see the road again and quickly slid down the landslide, how ironic.  Alarmingly there were local children playing happily on the landslide, apparently unaware of how dangerous it was.

Whereas we often have extreme health and safety regulations back in blighty, there seems to be no health and safety at all in many other parts of the world.  On the one hand, I love and admire this because I almost see it as an acceptance of external forces, an attitude that whatever will be will be and there is nothing to be done about it.  But on the other hand, I think standing on a fresh landslide is one risk I would rather not take.  I climbed over it as quickly as I could and I didn’t hang around to take in the view – although the little snippets I did see from the corner of my floor focused eyes were pretty amazing.

Finally, we reached the road again and were met with cheers and chuckles from locals watching the western backpackers navigate the landslide with ‘sterling expertise’.  We walked down the road past yet more held up vehicles coming the other way and started looking for our coach.  Obviously, our coach was right at the back of all the traffic, so after another long walk we were loaded up and set off again for Luang Prabang.

A combination of probable sunstroke, tiredness and adrenaline meant we were wide awake for the rest of the journey telling each other repeatedly how unbelievable it was that we had just climbed over a landslide.  Our coach pulled in to the bus station, we hopped into a tuk tuk and we finally arrived at our hostel about four hours later than planned.  Just after we checked in, we turned to see Mick walking through the gate.  He was passing on the off chance we had arrived, what a nice stroke of luck!  We had dinner at the amazing night market in Luang Prabang (if you ever get the slightest chance to go, take it) and slept very deeply.

All the pictures used in this post were taken by Kayleigh who cleverly got her camera ready before we began the climb, she got some pretty good shots!

Selamat Datang

One of the best (or worst, you decide) things about backpacking is the fact that you are completely and utterly dependent on circumstances way out of your control.  You have to accept this and go with the flow because, well, what else are you going to do?

Take, for example, the time I journeyed from Taman Negara to the Perhentians in Malaysia, during which time I learnt where not to stay in a town called Jerantut.  A brilliant hostel manager in Taman Negara had given us what felt like inside information on the cheapest way to reach the Perhentian islands.  How lovely for this man to help us rather than trying to convince us to go the whole way in his brother’s taxi!  Rather than booking a mini bus like most folk, we were told to get a local bus to Jerantut.  The bus left at 7.00pm every day from a bus stop down the road.  After giving us very intricate directions to the bus stop (it was actually just a street corner, had he not been so specific we would have certainly missed it), he explained that we could get a night train from Jerantut.  The bus would arrive at about 10.00pm, and the train would leave at 2.00am, arriving at Kota Bahru in the early hours of the morning just in time for the first boat to Pulau Perhentian Kecil.  We thought it was an excellent plan – we could get a late dinner in Jerantut, book our tickets when the station opened at midnight, buy some beer and some playing cards and slowly drift off to sleep on the night train.  Perfect.

Full of excitement and eagerness we played a spot of frisbee while we waited for the bus to arrive, and when it did arrive we realised that it was not a bus.  It was a ten seater van, already with about eleven people in it. Of course the driver managed to fit us all in and off we went (at 6.40pm, anyone ‘cutting it fine’ would have missed it, although to be honest I’m not sure the driver could have physically fitted anymore humans and backpacks in the vehicle).  It was an uncomfortable journey to say the least, especially with the lack of air con, but we took in the beautiful sunset and chatted excitedly about the journey we had ahead.

Upon arrival at Jerantut, we found a local night market and got stuck into some serious satays and sticky rice with peanut sauce.  I distinctly remember taking a photo of the group looking tired but happy, when I look at that photo now I think ‘If only we knew …’.  After dinner we found a bar and had a couple of beers – there was still about an hour and a half to go anyway!  We then confidently marched up to the train station just before midnight, all smiles.  Mick and Kayleigh went up to the counter to book our tickets, Dave and I played chest bumps with our backpacks and then I turned to see Mick’s facial expression had turned from a bright smile into a very concerned frown.  It turned out that the magical night train had been cancelled earlier that day due to landslides on the tracks.  I was the only one who laughed.

We had two options, we could either get the train the next day at 2.00pm, or we could get a bus at 6.00am to the neighbouring town, and then another bus directly to Kota Bahru.  Both options left us with a slight problem – where did we sleep?

We opted to get up at 6.00am and head to the bus station, we then had to decide what to do until then.  I toyed with the idea of staying up, then Mick and Dave suggested we just take turns to sleep on the platform. You weren’t allowed to, but there were no security guards anywhere, plus it was nice and cool, and it would also be free.  Sadly there was a fifth addition to our group at the time and she definitely did not want to spend the night on the platform.  After much resistance we agreed to head into the town centre and at least see if anywhere was still open.  We found one place that was, it was called Chett Fatt Hotel.  It looked promising initially – the room was reasonably priced, the guy at the reception desk told us where the bus station was, and I even saw a sign saying ‘free water’, great!  He showed us to our room and we immediately realised we had made a huge mistake in adhering to the fifth person’s wishes.  The en suite had no toilet, so naturally previous guests had just gone in the shower, giving the room a distinct aroma of urine.  In addition to this the air con and the fan were broken, and the room without these two aids was hotter than any hotel or hostel room I have ever been in.  So instead of having a night of rough sleep for free, we paid for a night of absolutely no sleep whatsoever.

In the morning as I went to brush my teeth I saw the free water on offer, oddly enough the table on which the bottles were placed was still full.  I think the reason no one had taken any might have had something to do with the fact that the water in the bottles was yellow.  Once ready we left the hotel and the boys went off to find out which bus we needed and what time it left.  We guarded the bags and took in how unbelievably tired we felt.  Ten minutes later we were on another bus which was empty to begin with, but slowly it filled up with school children.  Just school children …  we were on a school bus.  Mick and Dave hit it off with the kids asking them about music, one child in particular stood out as his favourite artists were the Black Eyed Peas and Muse!  About one hour later we had breakfast at KFC (sometimes you need something western) and booked tickets on to our final bus journey.  We were told it would take six to seven hours, that sounded reasonable.  Of course it actually took us well over nine hours.

The journey was mostly uneventful except for the driver’s driving style being truly terrifying and one of the boys eating a dangerous fish curry at a road side restaurant.  Needless to say he became unwell a few hours later.  I won’t name names, but we’ve all been there when backpacking anyway.

When we eventually reached Kota Bahru we checked into a proper hotel, showered and slept extremely well.  We had a taxi booked to the jetty at 8.00am the following day.  Mick, who didn’t want to pay for a hotel, was staying in a hostel nearby and had agreed to meet us there.  We piled into the taxi and all began to doze off slightly as we were driven to the jetty.  Along one particular stretch of road I looked ahead and could see a car at a junction waiting for a clear gap.  As I watched idly the car began to edge out tentatively onto the main road.  ‘He must have seen us, we’re doing over fifty, possibly sixty’, I thought as the car alarmingly continued to creep forward with us charging towards it.  I was suddenly acutely aware that there were no seat belts in the back of the car, and that I was sitting in the middle seat.  The taxi driver had spotted the car ahead and was beginning to veer right to go around it.  ‘Ah good, we’re veering out of the way and the car at the junction has stopped.’

When we were dangerously close to said car, the driver suddenly lurched forward, our driver swerved violently to the right, instead of stopping the other car lurched forward yet again and didn’t stop.  The taxi driver slammed on the brakes, Dave positioned one arm across both seats and the other firmly on the dash board, I grabbed the seats in front of me and pushed myself back as hard as I could, the other two girls woke up literally just in time to brace themselves and we smashed straight into the side of the other car, which was slung across to the opposite side of the road and landed in a ditch.  The driver turned out to be an elderly expat from London and amazingly had nothing but a scratch on his forehead.  Kayleigh whipped out her first aid kit and cleaned him up, and we were quickly ushered into another taxi by a local.  I looked back and saw that the entire local village had turned up to help out.  None of us were hurt – except for Kayleigh who acquired a bruised thumb for a few days.  Shaken, but now more determined than ever to get to the Perhentians, we got our boats tickets and waited impatiently to be called.  We hadn’t seen Mick anywhere and agreed we would find him on the island.

A bumpy boat ride later we stopped and took in the view.  I have never seen water so blue and crystal clear.  Finally after a journey that quite possibly could not have gone more wrong, we had arrived at our destination and it already felt worth it.

We found a four bed hut with a staggering view and hoped to see Mick – the fifth member of our group decided to stay elsewhere, so we had a spare bed ready and waiting.  We had breakfast and looked over the long white beach, and just when we began to worry we might not see Mick again he appeared at our table like an shining Australian beacon of joy.

‘Sorry I’m late guys, I missed the boat.  I got held up on my way to the jetty by some car crash – you should have seen the glass!  I think I got there seconds after it had happened!’

Thankfully, I can now look back on this journey and laugh cheerfully!  It definitely makes for entertaining memories and also made this view that bit more spectacular.